The Colonial Office was the administrative office of the British Secretary of State for the Colonies, the cabinet minister designated with the responsibility for the administration of the colonies in the British Empire. Although formally established in 1854 as a separate office, the Colonial Office was preceded by several government agencies which supervised colonial affairs, dating back to the mid-seventeenth century.
Although England acquired colonies (or plantations) early in the seventeenth century, there was no formal organization which dealt specifically with colonial administration until 1660. In 1660 a Committee of the Privy Council for the Plantations (1660-75) was formed (later the Council for Foreign Plantations). The council reviewed colonial laws and provided instructions to the governors. Although there was a brief amalgamation with the Council of Trade, a privy council committee responsible for British commerce, as the Council for Trade and Plantations (1672-74), the Council for Foreign Plantations functioned until 1675 when it was replaced by the Lords of Trade and Plantations, commonly called the Board of Trade.
The Board of Trade (1696-1782), established by William III, consisted of ministers of state, under a president. Its mandate was to advise the crown on issues relating to plantations, trade and poor law. In practice, it focused on the administration of the colonies, especially instructions to the governors, colonial legislation, administration of justice, and colonial appointments. The Board of Trade was officially subordinate to the secretaries of state; the latter, however, relied on the board for direction on colonial issues. In 1768, a Secretary of State for the American Department was established in a vain effort to avert conflict in the American colonies.
Following the loss of the American colonies, both the Secretary of State for the American Department and the Board of Trade were eliminated (1782) although the board was briefly revived in 1784 and 1794 respectively. The Board of Trade was replaced by the Plantations Branch in the Home Office.
During the Napoleonic wars, the office of the third secretary of state was created to supervise the conduct of the war. In 1801 the British government established a War and Colonial Department under a single secretary of state and responsibility for colonial affairs was transferred from the Home Office to the newly-created department. Following the end of the French wars (1815), colonial administration became the primary role for the new department. From 1822 the Colonial Office was organized into four geographical departments, one of which was North America (including Bermuda).
In 1854 the commencement of the Crimean War and reforms in the British civil service prompted the division of the War and Colonial Department. A separate Colonial Office, under a secretary of state for the colonies, was established. During the imperialist expansion into Africa, Asia and India, the Secretary of State and the Colonial Office became one of the most significant ministries in the British government.
The Secretary of State for the Colonies was usually an influential politician; five of the twelve British prime ministers had been responsible for the ministry. In the nineteenth century, the administration of the Colonial Office became increasingly professionalized, with emphasis on diligent civil servants, and careful records-keeping. In the 1820s, the Blue Books were instituted, requiring colonies to return annual reports (on pre-printed blue forms) on population, trade, revenue, officials and salaries, public institutions and local government. In 1837, the Colonial Office ordered the bi-annual submissions of colonial gazettes which published ordinances, legislation, government and professional regulations, land and mine grants, official appointments, and liquidations. The office also introduced a registry system for all correspondence, with multiple, interlinking entry books.
The emergence of self-governing colonies in British North America, New Zealand and Australia challenged the administrative structure of the Colonial Office. In 1907, following the Imperial Conference, the Colonial Office was divided: the Crown Colonies Division for dependencies and the Dominions Division for self-governing colonies. In 1925, a separate Dominions Office was created, with responsibilities for self-governing colonies.
With the creation of the Dominions Office, the Colonial Office declined in importance, although it retained general responsibility for the colonies. In 1966 the Colonial Office merged with the Commonwealth Relations Office to form the Commonwealth Office.